When Knowing Dog Training Comes in Handy for Raising Kids — Or Operant Conditioning: Part 1

nagging1-copyWhen I was young, I was quite shy and never liked drawing attention to myself.  One of the ways this manifested was that I spoke very softly.  My wonderful father was bothered by this trait and took it upon himself to remedy the situation.  Anytime I spoke, he’d interrupt and insist that I speak more loudly.

Interestingly, this constant reminder to speak up did not have the effect of making me speak louder.  Instead, I’d step closer to be heard well.  It seemed, back then, I was constitutionally incapable of turning up the volume.

Eventually, I came into my own and I now have no problem speaking at audible levels. I would say it was in spite of my father’s attempts. He would say it was because of his attempts.

Whether that factored into an aversion I have to both nagging and being nagged, I couldn’t say for sure, as it seems life provides plenty of opportunity for both. Seems to me that if someone can’t adjust from being told something a few times — okay, no more than a dozen times — then it’s time to figure out a new plan.

So when I found myself recently caught in an ineffective parenting loop, the likes of my father’s dilemma with me — yes, nagging — I stopped and confessed my quandary to Cait, asking her for ideas.

Having spent enough time training dogs with me over the years, her immediate response was, “Why don’t you try some Positive Reinforcement on me?”

“Now there’s a big ‘DUH’ moment.” I laughed. “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

Cait just shrugged and quickly went on to offer what positive reinforcer she thought would work.

It was, of course, the perfect solution. Problem solved lickety-split, and on we went.

What Cait was suggesting was using one of the tenets of Operant Conditioning; the basis for all dog training.

It works like this: In scientific terms “positive” and “negative” are used to mean adding something or taking something away. The terms “reinforcement” and “punishment” equate to behavior increasing or decreasing.

When we combine those four words, we have:

  • Positive Reinforcement (+R)  Anything good that is added (positive) that increases (reinforces) behavior.
  • Positive Punishment (+P)  Anything bad that is added (positive) that decreases (punishes) behavior
  • Negative Reinforcement (-R)  Anything bad that is taken away (negative) to increase (reinforce) behavior.
  • Negative Punishment (-P)  Anything good that is taken away (negative) to decrease (punishes) behavior.

The choice of words used is somewhat unfortunate, because of our associations with them.  But, simply put, Operant Conditioning works by adding or taking away something wanted or unwanted to get a behavior to increase or decrease.

When Cait was suggesting Positive Reinforcement, what she meant was that if I rewarded her for doing the behavior I wanted — in this case, chewing with her mouth closed — she would be more likely to remember to chew with her mouth closed the next time.

The reason I included Cait in the discussion of what the reinforcer should be is that it needed to be sufficient enough (of high enough value) to get Cait motivated to offer the desired behavior. In this case, neither repetitive nagging nor casual praise had been effective.

Because Cait is saving money to attend a marine biology camp next summer, the reinforcer was easy to determine. Cait would get a dollar for every time I caught her chewing with her mouth closed.

And because it always helps to support the training objective (getting Cait to chew with her mouth closed) in as many ways as possible, I added  a -P or a Negative Punishment. Any time I caught her chewing with her mouth open, she had to pay me a dollar.

This one-two punch made for extremely quick–and painless–work in attaining the desired goal. And I got to stop nagging, and Cait got closer to her savings goal. A win-win for both of us.

Next week, in Part 2, I’ll more completely explain the workings of operant conditioning and why it’s such a powerful and when used well, such a positive tool.

Most people, unaware, use some part of operant conditioning in all of their dealings in an attempt to get what they want. I’ll explain why my father’s approach with my speaking softly (+P) wasn’t effective, and what other options he could have tried that would have worked better. And I’ll show you how to avoid that trap, so you can understand and use Operant Conditioning effectively and constructively too.

5 thoughts on “When Knowing Dog Training Comes in Handy for Raising Kids — Or Operant Conditioning: Part 1”

  1. Michelle O'Neil

    Wonderful advice! I love that your daughter thought of this on her own and offered the perfect suggestion. I have a couple of situations going on here with the kids, and I’ll have to ask them what incentive THEY think will offer the right motivation.

  2. Positive reinforcement does work better, thanks for the reminder. I tend to sulk if I am not getting the changes I want, instead of taking action…

  3. I too, use this on my kids. In fact, I still do. I try hard to notice and mark good behavior with a “thank you” or “good job”. It does work, and it builds the kind of relationship I want with my kids instead of the type I often see.

  4. Sounds like something that could be used in government, and on an international level too! Just imagine……

  5. Thank you Thank you Thank you for explaining the four facets of operatant conditioning. I live with a psychobioligist and this is the hardest thing for people to understand in her psych classes.

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